A winsome elf named Link paused at the bombed-out doorway, sword in one hand, flame-thrower in the other.
“Don’t go in there!” yelled 10-year-old Gene Lee, determined to protect Link from the fanciful creatures waiting to attack. “There’s Like-Likes in there, and they’ll take away your magical shield!”
Link, star of the hot-selling game The Legend of Zelda, belongs to a pack of “new generation” characters leading a revival of the annual $2-billion U.S. home video game market. But with sound effects, graphics and story lines far more captivating and complex than their blob-chasing antecedents of a decade ago, these “interactive” and “role-playing” games are also reviving an old worry: Do the self-esteem and computer skills the games teach outweigh their sometimes violent content?
Experts are particularly wary of video games that hew closer to real life. For example, also available to home consumers are games such as Operation Wolf and Contra, featuring jungle warfare, and Shinobi, about terrorists and their hostages. Priced from $20 to $40, the games do not include the required television playback unit, which costs about $100.
Perhaps most controversial of all is the street-punk warfare game Double Dragon, in which a woman in a tight red dress is punched unconscious and carried off by several men. Using a control paddle, a player “becomes” hero Billy Lee, who uses knives, whips, a baseball bat and dynamite against the kidnapers.
Action Games Sell Big
Introduced last June, Double Dragon sold 100,000 copies in its first 30 days, said a spokesman for Nintendo of America Inc., which dominates the home video game market with games like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. The company also expects to introduce game versions of the horror films “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” next spring.
“Action games are what the kids want now,” said Byron Cook, president of Corsicana, Tex.-based Tradewest Corp., a licensee of Nintendo of America. “I don’t think kids view (Double Dragon) in that context (of violence). It’s just fun action, me against the bad guy. They don’t attach the importance to it that adults do.”
Indeed, some parents and psychologists worry that such games make violence and war seem ordinary and thus more acceptable. Psychiatrist Tom Radecki, for one, has serious misgivings about the combination of aggression and role-playing he believes the games inspire.
“The hours per week playing plus other violent viewing is what adds up,” he said. “Identifying with characters such as those in Double Dragon has a more subtle influence than most people realize. Role-playing means direct involvement and this reward for killing is a very powerful thing.”
On a more positive note, UCLA psychology professor Patricia Marks Greenfield said recent studies suggest video games may contribute to children’s intellectual development. Pointing out that players have to assess characters’ “personalities,” deduce the nature of obstacles, calculate spatial relationships and coordinate information coming from several sources at once, she maintains that complex games help develop flexible strategic thinking.
Better Cognitive Skills
“In every study, we found that expert players were more advanced than novice players in (certain) cognitive skills,” said Greenfield, author of the book “Mind and the Media.” Role-playing games could be especially valuable for learning-disabled or under-confident children, she added, providing a powerful motivation to get involved, and promoting feelings of mastery and control.
Jack McDermott, professor of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii and editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, agrees that video games can have a positive effect.
“Most appealing are the ones that tap into universal (psychological) forces” such as childhood fears of helplessness and abandonment, said McDermott, an expert on the dynamics of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. “These games have the power to overcome the fears.”
Age Is a Factor
How violent themes affect children is not known, he said, but age appears to be a factor in the identification process.
“Older kids can pull themselves in and out of the characters and they are generally more absorbed in the development of their game characters and in problem-solving than they are in violence,” McDermott said. “But the younger a child is, the less sharp the boundaries are between fantasy and reality. They are more vulnerable to the blurring of the boundaries.”
In research conducted a year ago with preschoolers and second- and fourth-graders, those who played interactive video games--in which a light-activated, pistol-grip “zapper” is pointed at the television screen--engaged in 80% more “minor hostile” behavior such as kicking, pulling hair and pushing, immediately after playing, said Radecki, chairman and research director of the National Coalition on Television Violence in Champaign, Ill.
“The one thing that has come out of the television violence studies is that the more realistic and complex the violence is, the more likely it is to have a harmful effect,” he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also has taken a strong stand against television toys because of “their potential to promote violent and aggressive behavior, increase the intellectual passivity with which children view television and inhibit imaginative play.”
In a recommendation issued last year, the academy also opposed “the growing commercialization of television that these toys represent” and the exploitation of children as consumers.
But Michael Cole, a communications professor at UC San Diego and a video game researcher, maintains it is difficult to draw a direct causal relationship between behavior and televised violence. “For example, when I was a kid, I played war games, and I read war books at the library, but now I am intensely anti-violence.”
Furthermore, industry spokesmen point out, almost all games have an element of confrontation and role-playing.
“Any game has violence,” said J. C. Appel, head game counselor at Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. “Even the mildest board games use aggressive terminology like strike and attack . You have to destroy, or defeat, or beat, or win. We don’t like to say kill. It’s not the killing, it’s the high action (that’s important).”
Added Michael Katz, Atari Corp.'s president for video games: “You’re trying to do something or find something, and you end up having to kill something. That theme is in the games because that’s what generates excitement. Every time we’ve tried to market pro-social (educational) games, their popularity has been minuscule. Retailers won’t touch them with a 10-foot pole.”
In one area, however, psychologists and manufacturers agree: Parents should monitor the games and how long their children play them.
“One of the big messages out of the research on television effects,” Cole said, “is that parents need to interact with their kids and these videos.”
This is especially true if a child’s playing is interfering with the development of peer relationships, a critical task of childhood, experts say.
Peter Tanguay, director of children’s services at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, puts it bluntly: “To the extent these games interfere with this, they’re bad. That’s the bottom line.”
Few Social Skills
Children who have difficulty with social skills are probably the ones most likely to play video games to excess, he added.
Some parents rue the day they brought video games into their homes. Akila Gibbs, a KTLA-TV planning editor, said it has been a constant struggle to get her 11-year-old son, Imari, to “do anything but sit there and zone out. I feel like I’m competing with this machine.” Gibbs now restricts video game play to weekends.
Pat Hernandez, mother of 11-year-old Rio-Bec, had a similar problem.
“It’s worse than the TV (because) it sucks them in 80% more than the TV did,” she said. “They become belligerent about being interrupted. If TV was a waste of time, (video games are) an abuse of time.”
Better Than TV
But others disagree, saying many video games are less violent than television shows and movies and preferable to other activities.
"(The games have) something that really gets them involved,” said Rosa Espinosa, mother of Elias, 10, and Armando, 12. Though their playtime is rationed, Espinosa said, “I’d rather have them playing (Nintendo) inside than hanging out on the corner.”
In fact, rationing isn’t always necessary because many children become bored with video games after an hour or so.
“I get tired of just killing,” said 10-year-old Wyatt Head of Mt. Washington. Some games are “too violent,” he said. “They should just keep it where you kill monsters instead of people, your own kind.”
Learning to Set Goals
His father, Carl, thinks video games breed “an antisocial quality I don’t like, and I’m not sure about the educational value. But,” he added, “Wyatt is learning to set goals and work against himself. He does feel a sense of accomplishment. Once he sets goals, he’ll stay up all night (playing the game) to achieve them.”
Mary Nissenson, a former Chicago television news anchor and confirmed “Zelda addict,” reported on Nintendo for a two-part special that aired on a Chicago station last spring.
“I think there’s been a lot of criticism of these games by people who don’t know anything about them,” she said. "(Zelda) teaches all kinds of things. You learn to prioritize. You learn to build up your strength, to get the right weapons, not to go in where you’re not ready. It builds analytical skills and teaches children that sometimes the short-term attractive goal is not the best one.
“I’ve seen shy children for whom the games are a wonderful experience,” added Nissenson, whose stepson is an avid player. “They build confidence. They have long-term goals, they learn strategy. And it’s genuinely fun for adults.”
But Carole Lieberman, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist who specializes in the social effects of violence in the media, believes that visualized violence is very different from that coded into words, or into play that a child initiates. The real problem, she said, stems for the numerous sources of stimulation, including the largest contributor--television.
‘Acting Out’ Drives
“We’re born with an aggressive drive and a sex drive,” she said. “With normal amounts of stimulation, aggression becomes ambition and sex becomes love. But in our culture, these drives are just being acted out randomly.”
Gratuitous violence, such as that shown on TV, can combine with a lack of stability in the home to overstimulate children, she said. “So children are apt to have more problems with impulse control. They are more apt to act out.”
Setting up a problem and delivering a reward for its solution can be powerful, she agrees, but “there are other kinds of rewards than killing. People should get together in these toy industries and compete to support American values instead of just exploiting these drives.”
The games should have a moral, psychiatrist McDermott said, “that it’s better to resolve things at a higher level--talking, reasoning, or figuring things out--instead of punching.”
A Step Backward
UCLA’s Greenfield agrees that rewarding killing is a step backward.
“I was hoping that video games would diversify in their themes, but they’ve gone much further with violence, making it more realistic and graphic,” she said.
Peter Main, marketing vice president for Nintendo of America, a subsidiary of the 100-year-old Japanese toy maker, said the company is considering an age-rating system similar to those used for movies.
“We as manufacturers and suppliers should (be) . . . asking questions about whether we should be grading this, or de-emphasizing (games like Double Dragon).”
He attributes demand for aggressive role-playing games to their popularity in arcades. Designed with intense action and quick resolution to keep player turnover high and quarters feeding into the machines, he acknowledges that arcade-game formats may be inappropriate for home use, where play is unlimited and small children can watch.
“We know we need parental and educational endorsement,” Main said. “This business is really dependent on staying current with today’s thinking, and so we do withdraw games. Two years ago, 100% of our product was arcade-based. Now it’s only 25%.”
One-third of the company’s 90-game library consists of sports titles, he added, and holiday releases will be confined to an exercise game, a board-like game for adults, and expanded versions of Zelda and Mario Brothers.
For veteran arcade toy makers Atari and Sega, sports games have also proved to be best sellers on the home video game front. Both manufacturers say they plan to release a mixture of adventure role-playing games and sports titles for the holidays.